NPR logo Muslims In Minnesota Weigh Whether To Expel Or Engage At-Risk Youth

Muslims In Minnesota Weigh Whether To Expel Or Engage At-Risk Youth

Ahmed Ismail, a soccer coach, runs the West Bank Athletic Club in Minneapolis. His players practice near a large Somali community where young people have been recruited to fight in overseas conflicts. Craig Lassig/AP hide caption

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Craig Lassig/AP

Ahmed Ismail, a soccer coach, runs the West Bank Athletic Club in Minneapolis. His players practice near a large Somali community where young people have been recruited to fight in overseas conflicts.

Craig Lassig/AP

There's a common argument around Muslim extremism that calls for moderate Muslims to denounce and condemn radical adherents of Islam. Many folks push back on that idea by pointing out that Islam isn't a monolith, that there are well north of a billion Muslims in the world, and that it's wrong to conflate the small number of dangerous radicals with everyone who belongs to the faith.

Those very tensions are playing out right now in the Somali immigrant communities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

In recent months, about a dozen young people from the area have left the United States to join extremist groups, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State. (Two of those Minnesotans are thought to have been killed fighting in Syria.) Several years back, a larger contingent of about two-dozen people joined Al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist group based in Somalia. Recruiters from terrorist groups have posted slickly produced videos online that are meant to appeal directly to young people in the Twin Cities.

"Those that are living in the U.S. — especially Minnesota — Great Britain, Germany and many parts of the kafir [unbelievers'] world, you have a decision to make today," a man in one of those videos said.

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Laura Yuen of Minnesota Public Radio recently talked to Salam Al-Marayati, who heads up the Muslim Public Affairs Council. He said that kicking those young radicals out of the mosque probably isn't all that helpful at keeping them from becoming extremists — indeed, expulsion probably makes it worse.

"A key component is to supply the mosques with mental health professionals and social workers who can intervene in the lives of troubled people before they become violent.

"The need to intervene became tragically clear after last year's Boston Marathon bombing, he said.

" 'In retrospect, we should have intervened, we should have helped, we should have tried to rehabilitate him,' Al-Marayati said of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of two brothers suspected of waging the attack. Months before the bombing, Tsarnaev had two outbursts at a local mosque in response to sermons urging peace and co-existence.

" 'He stood up in the mosque and started shouting at the imam. And he was kicked out of that mosque,' Al-Marayati said. 'It's understandable that people like that are kicked out. But what happened was Tamerlan went somewhere else where he felt belonged, and he felt he did not belong in our community. ... [The attack] was a catastrophe to our country. It led to the killing of innocent people. And it led to the tarnishing of our religion.' "

Instead, Al-Marayati is calling for a strategy that would reach out to disaffected young men — much the same way community groups try to stage interventions for gang members. The thinking goes that if they engage kids from the local Somali immigrant community in sports and try to put a dent in their low high school graduation rates, they might be able to keep some of those young kids from radicalizing. Some public officials have endorsed that plan, too.

But some imams said they often don't have the time or mental health resources to dedicate to helping the young people who might need it. Others expressed ambivalence about the framing of these outreach efforts — they're on board with helping young, marginalized Somalis, but bristle at the threat of radicalization as the reason for all the new attention and resources.

Here's Yuen again:

"[Amano] Dube, the Brian Coyle Center director, agrees that more programming for East African youth is needed. He has mixed feelings about radical recruitment as an argument for that. Yes, radicalization is a concern. But community leaders shouldn't blow the issue out of proportion and steer the conversation away from larger concerns, such as high youth unemployment and homelessness. They need to make a solid case linking a lack of resources to the departures of Somali youths and put forth a plan for effective programs."

I spoke to Ibrahim Hooper, who heads the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who told me that mosque attendance is often a moderating influence; the people who might be in danger of radicalizing are less likely to belong to a mosque to begin with. "It's the loners, the people who are on the Internet [who are the concern]," he said.

Still, he lamented that Muslim communities in the U.S. are often asked to be responsible for radical Muslims everywhere, even when they're radical Muslims like ISIS in other countries. In the popular thinking, he said, "it becomes [Muslims'] duty to be like law enforcement rooting out criminals in our community."